Ceramic decorative art of the Aesthetic Movement

The art, design and personalities that appeared during the Aesthetic Movement are gaining new popularity. The first museum exhibit on the period — 10 years in the making — opens in California in February, following stops in London and Paris. Auctions featuring Aesthetic Period ceramics in England reported better-than-expected sales results last summer. Major sales are planned for March and June.

Aesthetic Movement iron stoneMaking average household products beautiful (for the sake of beauty) is at the heart of the Aesthetic Period. This 6 1/2-inch ironstone vessel represents numerous design conventions during this period. Its Japanesque bulbous body is decorated in a black transferware pattern featuring birds, butterflies, a stream, water plants, berries, flowers and an Oriental fan motif. A small handle on the top bridges the circumference of the vessel’s opening, creating a separation with a decorative loop at the top, also accented with a transfer decoration. The attention to detail is so over the top it nearly betrays the object’s original function: a simple family toothbrush holder. The British ceramic registration marks on the bottom show its pattern and shape were both registered with England’s Public Record Office on Jan. 30, 1856.

No other medium reflects the diversity and personality of the movement than its ceramics. Objects and forms are as functional as they are unpredictable, colorful, and, well, just plain odd. Many collectors of British ceramics tend to specialize in certain makers, such as Spode, Coalport or Belleek. This, in turn, means market prices for items from obscure factories or featuring odd designs are very affordable. Aesthetic movement ceramics, however, keep an inverse relationship between value and weirdness. Slightly odd pieces are not as valuable as mainstream themes, but the weirdest of the weird (drenched in stylized spider silk, frogs, snakes, dragonflies and even obscure buildings) are considered outstanding among collectors.

Main Tenets of The Aesthetic Movement

The bedrock concept behind the creation of certain ceramic forms is at the heart of the true meaning of the Aesthetic Movement: “Art for art’s sake, the idea that beauty alone is the sole justification for an art work,” said Tim Sublette, co-owner of Columbus, Ohio’s Seeker’s Antiques (614-291-2203 or 614-746-6296). Sublette and his business partner, Mark Brown, have sold fine English and American ceramics since 1984. In addition to educating collectors at numerous shows, the two provide a wealth of research and expert perspective with a blog on the SeekersAntiques.com website. The blog complements an extensive list of aesthetic ceramics for sale, and the site generously shares a backlog of images of aesthetic goods that have sold, as well as the available pieces on the site.

Artists active in the Aesthetic Movement’s work rejected the notion that art should tell a story, provide moral or religious inspiration, or serve a political or social agenda, Sublette said. Decorative impact was enough. Aesthetic ceramics break the rules of conventional European ceramic design, he said.

“Take plates, as an example — most had basically been conceived as a picture (maybe scenic, maybe floral) framed by a symmetrical border. The aesthetic plate is, instead, a flat surface on which decorative motifs have been applied — pretty much the way cut-out designs were pasted into scrapbooks,” he says. “When scenes are employed, Japanese or European, they often appear like isolated postcards. There may be no border at all. The design may not be centered on the plate. Design elements might be scattered on a blank background or surrounded by intricate ground patterns. The different elements might form a unified whole or exist in the sort of odd juxtapositions. In at least one pattern, the decorators were instructed to apply transfer print motifs at random.”

Aesthetic Movement platterThis white ironstone platter, measuring 17 3/4 inches by 14 1/2 inches, shows a ‘artistically arranged” brown transferware Aesthetic pattern. The seemingly random placement of the design elements was encouraged as a way to rebel against more rigid design theories. This platter is valued at about $100 to $150. Photo courtesy eBay seller janusian.

Aesthetic Movement Artistic Themes and Techniques

While there is the mix of cultural elements mentioned above, Japanese motifs certainly had the greatest popularity. These include images associated with Japan — bamboo, cranes, waves, carp, streaming banners, Japanese-style structures, etc. These are mixed with abstract ornamentation lifted from Japanese objects, including fret patterns, zigzag borders and round Japanese crests, or mons. Starting in the late 1700s, British porcelain makers drew inspiration from Asian stylings, primarily those of Japanese makers, who, in turn, had been influenced by the patterns and forms employed by Chinese artists.

Aesthetic Period ceramic motifs common in the 1870s and 1880s include fans, half circles or picture frames filled with decorative patterns or scenes, prunus blossoms, bamboo and birds and butterflies arranged asymmetrically in collage-like effects, according to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. Many Aesthetic period-inspired earthenwares are printed in brown, black, red or green on ivory-dyed ceramic bodies.

Aesthetic Movement vase with cranes

This Aesthetic Movement polychrome decorated vase, circa 1880, features a bulbous form having an incised and polychrome decorated surface depicting birds in flight, executed in the Anglo Japanese taste and having a floral decorated neck. It is unsigned, stands 9 3/4 inches high and sold for $500 during an Oct. 15, 2011, auction held by Clars Auction Gallery.

Transferware is a popular style of aesthetic ceramics developed in England. An engraved and inked copper plate is used to print a pattern on tissue paper, which then is used to transfer the wet ink to the surface of the ceramic piece before it is glazed. Designed for speed, transferware techniques allow potters to quickly apply complex decoration to pottery. These printed wares remained popular until around the mid-19th century, when they gave way to undecorated or minimally decorated white earthenwares and white granite wares (white ironstones).

Around 1870, printed wares enjoyed a brief revival that lasted until the use of decals became popular in the early 1900s.

Some Aesthetic period ceramics suffer from an unpleasant artistic balance in their decoration, according to English porcelain expert David Battie. Often Royal Worcester’s Japanese-influenced Aesthetic ceramics feature small designs, vignettes of ever-popular fans, bamboo and interesting Asian symbols in bright enamels that float in too empty a space to be effective. Market prices for these items are also low, but in that sense, they remain a good learning tool for collectors seeking examples from Aesthetic’s early period.

Key Players in Aesthetic Movement Ceramics

Royal Worcester’s work stands as some of the more stylistic (if not the most eccentric) designs of the era. More than 130 years later, collectors still marvel at the offbeat, quirky conventions brought to some pieces, both by potters and artists. One example, a rose-water sprinkler standing 9 1/4 inches high, is decorated with squirrels and birds on a pear-shaped vessel topped with a Persian-influenced stopper reminiscent of the bottle from “I Dream of Jeannie.” An Oriental-inspired goose head holds the sprinkler in its mouth. The general ceramics collecting public tends to find these items harder to appreciate, and they fetch less than they deserve, Battie says.

Designer Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) is considered the best at both breaking the rules and incorporating Japanese motifs in ceramic designs.

According to the book, The Potter’s Art, Dresser is considered the first modern industrial designer in Britain. He studied at the School of Design in London between 1847 and 1854. At first, Dresser made his living as a botanist, but in 1862, he committed himself to a career as a designer, publishing two major works in 1862. These were “The Art of Decorative Design” and “Development of Ornamental Art in the International Exhibition.”

Dresser evolved a personal philosophy and style that make him difficult to categorize. Although his work is considered part of the Aesthetic Movement, he considered the “art for art’s sake” attitude of the movement narcissistic, and chose to describe himself modestly as an “art workman.” His greatest achievement was an extraordinary body of designs, possibly more than 500, he produced for Linthorpe Pottery. These designs relied heavily on Japanese artistic influences and were crafted with a deep passion for the ceramic arts.

Christopher Dresser ceramics designer

Christopher Dresser, crown prince of Britain’s Aesthetic ceramic movement, is known for his wild, futuristic designs. His vase for Ault Pottery is presented in a shouldered form with cylindrical neck and everted rim, the shoulder modelled in relief with four masks, each with protruding elongated tongues, in glazes running in blue and aubergine. It sold for $7,300 in Woolley & Wallis Salisbury Salerooms’ June 22, 2011 Arts & Crafts auction. Photo courtesy Woolley and Wallis

Dresser was a collector, himself, and on one trip to Japan, he visited more than 70 potteries. His body of work easily establishes him as the most productive independent designer of ceramics of the Victorian era and the standard by which collectors compare everything else designed during the period.

Without a doubt, the most important and innovative ceramic producer was Minton, Sublette said. It played a dominant role in middle-class earthenwares, fine porcelain tablewares, majolica, decorative objects and tiles. Minton employed important designers like William Coleman and Dresser. The aesthetic trend helped rouse Wedgwood from a period of creative doldrums, and it, too, became a leader. Also making major contributions: Royal Worcester in porcelain and Doulton in pottery. The style, however, was so widespread among the potteries that it is hard to cite other consistent collecting preferences by maker. There is more likely to be a preference for certain patterns, the work of certain designers, or certain types of products (for example majolica or Minton’s imitation of cloisonné enamels), he said.

Ceramic Market Trends

The market for aesthetic-period ceramics grows every year, Sublette said.

“We see collectors whose interest has been sparked because the goods are right for the Victorian houses they are restoring,” he said. “Market interest in aesthetic silver has pulled interest in the ceramics along. Over our 25-plus years in the business, we have watched both scholarship and general knowledge of 19th-century ceramics gradually mature. When we started, there was almost nothing published on these goods; there still needs to be a comprehensive work on aesthetic transferware patterns.”

Sublette points to three different trends affecting the American market:
Museum personnel and scholars who — quite independently of each other and in different regions — have begun to build personal collections of aesthetic ceramics. “To us, this means that they see this as an important era of ceramic production that has not yet been all “collected up,” he said.

Aesthetic ceramics tend to fit into eclectic interiors. As collectors shy away from creating traditional looks in their homes, aesthetic ceramics can find new life.
Preferences for transferware colors follow trends. Sublette said he and his colleagues agree that brown is the currently “hot” color for transferware in general. Because brown was the dominant color for transfer printing in the aesthetic period, it relates well to this current preference.

Sellers Bently Chappell and Nancy Barshter, owners of Aesthetictransferware.com, said it’s primarily collectors who buy the most from their websites.

Chappell and Barshter don’t single out any one maker’s work as being more popular than another’s. Most of their buyers are in North America, but international sales are rising sharply, and many indicators suggest that an increase in the market is just around the corner, they said.

“Demand for good-quality ceramics made during the Aesthetic Movement continues to grow for their use at the dinner table, display, and their investment,” Chappell said. “Victorian transferware ceramics have stories to tell, which piques the interest with seasoned collectors, as well as those new to the market.”

The most popular forms are Japanesque and asymmetrical designs, with nature as a central theme. Ultimately, finding the right piece is a matter of personal preference. “Hundreds of late Victorian English potters created a palate of designs; beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” Chappell said.

There hasn’t been a stark change in interest in Aesthetic Movement ceramics following the debut of the first-ever exhibition on the Aesthetic Movement debuted at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, said Michael Jeffrey, associate director of England’s Woolley & Wallis’s 20th century design department. Work from acknowledged greats, such as William De Morgan, Christopher Dresser and William Burges, are stable in the marketplace, having been collected for a good 30 to 40 years at auction, he said.

William De Morgan charger

This William De Morgan ruby and copper lustre charger, by Charles Passenger, painted with a galleon at sail to the well, the sail decorated with a bear and stars, the rim a band of scaly fish before scrolling water, sold for $11,400 at a June 22, 2011 sale at Woolley & Wallis in England.

Collectors are eagerly buying Martin Brothers Pottery. A gourd vase sold for more than $1,500 during an Arts and Crafts auction last summer. A Martin Brothers grotesque bird sold well during a Nov. 30, 2011, art pottery auction, too.

“Most of our clients are U.K.-based, although we do have collectors in the USA,” Jeffrey said. “The quantity of ceramics coming onto the market is fairly stable — although with the Internet, smaller auctions are becoming more visible at the same time as some of the larger salerooms are raising their minimum lot thresholds and thus drastically reducing the number of items they would sell.”

Now is the time to buy quality ceramics if the relative price is low, Jeffrey advises. This is especially true for stylish designs by Dresser and even the more common De Morgan tiles. Good examples recently come to market were summarily snapped up by longtime collectors. Have no fear; as more items come on the market, those longtime collectors are “out of the wants loop,” Jeffrey said. “These still have the possibility of selling well if a new collector comes in for them.”

Barring a large and well-publicized selling exhibition devoted to the genre, Jeffrey expects little improvement in the market over the next 12 months.

Woolley & Wallis’ next auction featuring Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movement ceramics is scheduled for June 30. It can be found on www.woolleyandwallis.co.uk with Internet bidding facilitated by ArtFact.com.

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